On a warm, sunny day at the Santa Monica farmers’ market I met up with Chef Nyesha Arrington. We discussed her multicultural heritage, her love of food, and what it means to be a chef in one of the largest food cities in the world. Below is part of my conversation with her.
How important was food in your upbringing?
Well, extremely important. Food has always been an internal part of my life. I was born and raised Los Angeles; my father is African-American and my mom is Half Korean. I can remember, when I was about four years old, pulling into my grandmother’s driveway. I found a Banana Now and Later piece of candy in the back of my parents’ car. It was warm and soft from the sun, and I remember it being a whole new experience with the texture and up-front flavors. After that, I would hold the Now and Laters in my hand to heat them up and I will never forget that.
I can remember going to my grandmother’s house as a child, making dumplings and understanding culture through food. Cooking with her and learning about the spicy condiments. These experiences really molded the early stages of my life being that it was a very strict Korean Household.
Tell me about your experiences working under the tutelage of chefs like Joel Rubichon.
I started with Rafael Lunetta, and to me, he is the one of the quintessential LA chefs of our time. That was in 2001, and that was my first taste of what it is like to be a chef. I worked with a kitchen full of male Latinos and was welcomed with anger. Those kitchens were tough, hot, small, and hard — but over time, love always triumphs!
Then I met Josiah Citrin. Together, Josiah Rapheal and myself opened Lemon Moon. I eventually worked my way up from prep cook to sous chef. Then opened their second location as Chef.
After Lemon Moon, I went on to work at Melisse Restaurant. That was the most pivotal time in my life as a chef where I started honing my craft of cooking. I can remember this incident where I was viande (meat station which works right under the sous chef), and it was super busy. I had only been there for few months. The chef was yelling at me, I was railed with tickets and I ended up cutting my right hand pretty bad, so I ended up throwing some tape on it, switched to my left hand and didn't leave the line.
After service, the CDC — Brennan, who worked under Marco Pierre White — came up to me and said “I saw what happened to your hand. So you’re a chef huh?” Everything changed for me then, I ended up being there for two years.
What are your feelings towards being labeled as a female chef?
I just did the Women's Chef Conference with Dominique Crenn and she mentioned to me, “It’s not female chef, it’s just chef.” And I’m like, yeah dude, I agree. But it’s there; it’s a thing. Times are changing. In my kitchen it’s an all-female staff, which was unintended. I am a chef. I am a female. I want to inspire people who walk through my kitchen every day.
What kind of advice would you give to young female chefs?
I think it’s important to have staying power. I think you need to have discipline and listen very well. I think that's the most important thing.
What inspires you?
The creative process. What inspires me is to have an idea and work at it, a dish might always be exactly what you want the first time you plate it outside of your brain. You refine and see it come to life with story and sourcing great product. I carried this into all aspects of art and I paint as my outlet.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
If I weren't a chef I definitely would be doing something in the creative space. I enjoy painting. I just finished a painting I’m super proud of. So either painting or photography.
Finally, If you could have anything, what would your last dish/meal be?
I am so classic. I would have a dry-aged ribeye, with a nice cap on it, Rossini-style with a nice piece of Foie Gras on it, truffle potatoes, with a beautiful demi sauce... and a wedge salad.... and a shrimp cocktail!!
All the chefs that I cook and work with all have creativity and are extremely passionate. With Nyesha all those qualities were present but what struck me was a sense of beauty, both inside and out. I think that she could do anything in the creative arts and be successful at it. She’s that talented. Thank goodness for that candy she found in the back seat of her parents car. Without those the food world would have never known just how dam good she is.